The Supernatural Nature of Beauty
Who is considered beautiful? The answer to this question has varied throughout the ages and from nation to nation. Every individual has his or her own criterion—as the saying goes: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
As depicted in The Duke’s Bride, a poem recorded in The Book of Songs, the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BC, “Her fingers are soft like blades of a reed. Her skin is tender like congealed lard. Her neck is slender like the larva of the longhorn beetle. Her teeth are tidy like rows of melon seeds. Her forehead is broad like that of a dragonfly and her brows arch like a moth’s feelers.”
The following lines are “Dark and white are her whispering eyes. Glowing is her smiling face with dimples.” This verse may be the most typical description of a beautiful woman through the Chinese lens, as these expressive and vivid similes present beauty via an attractive carriage and impressive charm.
It depicts an example of perfection that renders the successors less confident. Therefore, however brilliant a poet Song Yu (319–298 BC) was, he could only praise a beauty living nearby as “A little longer would be too long while a little shorter too short. Blusher would be too much for her red, while powder is too much for her white.” While reading this equivocal verse, readers are not in any way introduced to the specific beauty of the woman.
A similar trick was adopted in
1 the Yuefu folk song about Luo Fu, a famous beauty during the Han Dynasty ( 206 BC– 220 AD). “A passerby will stop, lay down his load and stroke his mustache, and
a plowman will forget to till his land upon encountering Luo Fu.” How good-looking exactly was Luo Fu? We have no idea and are merely left with our imaginations.
Beauties in ancient fiction were often described with platitudes such as “Her beauty makes fish sink and wild geese fall, she obscures the moon and outshines flowers.” While the exaggeration goes to extremes, the beauties described are still no more than abstract silhouettes.
It was not until the age of The Plum
2 in A Golden Vase and A Dream
3 of Red Mansions that portraits of females became more concrete, and thus enable us to know that Lin Daiyu was slim while Xue Baochai was plump. Now, thanks to photography, movies, and TV, we are able to appreciate beauties from around the world and acquire some perceptual knowledge about them.
So, what kind of woman deserves to be called a “beauty”? Criteria may vary individually, although universally agreed upon standards do exist. A beautiful woman may be tall or short, plump or slim, but she must be well-proportioned in general. Of course there are exceptions. For example, in the Kingdom of Tonga, being overweight is considered beautiful. Moreover, in some African tribes, women have tattoos and nose rings—a quite different perspective on beauty. A beautiful woman may have a round or pointy face, large or small eyes, a high or low nose, a wide or narrow mouth, blonde or dark hair, but these features must combine in harmony. In other words, she should be inoffensive to the eye.
Women who meet the basic requirements of being inoffensive to the eye are a dime a dozen, however. Particularly in a materially rich era with advanced make-up, it is easy for most women to look good after grooming themselves. However, if one is to select a woman that is classified as gorgeous from a group of beauties, it is not enough to simply have a harmonious appearance and be pleasing to the eye.
On the contrary, disharmony may work better in some cases. Or, to put it in another way, real beauties have distinctive features. Features here do not refer to physical imperfections, but rather unique features, such as Gong Li’s canine teeth or Sophia Loren’s big mouth and full lips. Every unforgettably beautiful woman is attractive in her own way. Whereas the beauty eulogized by Song Yu in his poem, who is perfect in all respects, cannot be consider as beautiful in terms of contemporary aesthetics.
In my career as a writer, I have read many literary works. Those female images that have left an indelible impression on me are not those of
Diao Chan or Xi Shi, but the vixen sirens from the pen of Pu Songling, who was born in Shangdong, my hometown. Laughing or frolicking, each siren has her own distinct personality. Furthermore, all of them are otherworldly and free from unnecessary formalities. They also have nothing to do with hypocrisy or affectation, and they are fascinating for their overflowing glamour. Just think about international super models. Do their icy but enchanting glances come across as being human? No—they are the glances of vixens or sirens.
Consequently, I believe that true beauties are hard to find in the world, and that they must keep away from housework, such as cooking or sewing. I personally believe that Yang Liping, the pavane dancer,
could be on a par with Pu Songling’ s vixen siren. When dancing on the stage, she glows with a spellbinding aura like a fairy, not in any way like a human being. Thus, her beauty, like all true beauty, is inimitable and insurmountable.
( From What Is the Most Wonderful Smell, Nan Hai Publishing Co. Translation: Trans)